The Sunday Lao Tzu: Sowing The Seeds

He who obtains has little. He who scatters has much.

It’s a day for planting. The early garlic and shallots that I put into the ground last month will be joined in my little plot today by potatoes, cauliflower and salad crops. I am no gardener. But I enjoy the idea of a deal where a tiny amount of work can be rewarded with fresh food. Esoteric salad leaves in particular are cheap in seed form, easy to grow and infinitely preferable to supermarket pillow packs. A herb patch will give and keep on giving.

A little love now will mean I can harvest great rewards in a couple of months. And planting is a calm and meditative way to spend a Sunday morning. I wonder if Master Lao was a gardener. I like to think that he was.


Relish The Opportunity

As always, autumn has taken me by surprise. One minute, I’m hazing out in warm late summer sunshine, the next I’m slipping on wet leaves and trying to remember where I stashed my scarf. It always feels like a switch flip. There’s no buffer zone, no warning. Boom. It’s Halloween season. Time to put the heating on.

The bugger of it is that the cooler weather hit before the bulk of our tomatoes had a chance to fully ripen. This left me with four pounds of green toms. Well, you know how the saying goes. When life gives you green tomatoes, make relish.

So, yesterday’s rainy overcast gloom was cut by the bright sharp fug of cider vinegar, onions, peppers and apples cooking down with the toms to create a tart, fruity little number that will go down nicely with cold meats and cheeses. The remainder of the ripe toms were roasted with garlic, red onions and jalapenos from the garden to create a spicy roast tomato and chili sauce to warm our cockles. We had some of that with sausages for dinner, and it was just the ticket.

And that, oh Readership, is how you deal with a glut.

There’s plenty of relish if anyone wants a jar…

Front: roasted tomato and chili. All else: green tomato relish. A Sunday well spent!

The Simplest Of Lunches

Half an hour later we were eating these. After washing and cooking them, obvs...
This time of year always gets me thinking about food. I guess that’s because there’s so much of it coming out of the garden. The onions and garlic are safely gathered in, the chilis and tomatoes are ripening nicely. Beetroot this year was a bit of a disappointment, and I’m coming to the conclusion that I love it, but not enough to grow it and have half the crop rot away before I get round to eating it. I was slow planting salads this year, but we have an abundance of tender green leaves now.

On Sunday, I finally upended the potato bags, to be greeted with a trug full of treasure. Masses of beauties, dirt fresh and ready for the eating. TLC, as always, instantly came up with a quick idea for lunch. I love it when this happens. She gives me a shove in the right direction, and I roll off and make something good to eat.

I grabbed a double handful of small spuds, and set them to steam with some dried mint that we’d harvested a few weeks earlier. While the kitchen filled with subtly minty fog (the steamer lid don’t fit so good) I chopped a couple of tomatoes, fresh off the vine, and mixed a tin of tuna with some mayo. When the spuds were tender (about ten minutes, like I said, these were small) I let them cool slightly, before mixing them with the tuna and tomatoes. A last minute spark of inspiration lit up, and I chopped some fresh parsley into the mix. Into bowls. Out into the sunshine.

It was simple but really nice. The spuds were lovely all by themselves, but the mix really brought everything together. Look, I know it’s barely a recipe, but that’s the beauty of it. It’s so vague that you can really open it up to your own interpretation. Some capers would be nice to add a salty twang. Replace the parsley with mint or rosemary. If you’re veggie, try some mushrooms cut into chunks fried up in a bit of garlic butter. Carnivore? I reckon some corned beef would go nicely, turning the whole thing into a de-constructed hash. Actually, some beetroot would go nicely with that too. Hmm, there’s a thought…


(Photo credit: TLC)

Zen Gardening

The last time I bought a video camera was in 1999. It was to document our first trip to America, a two centre run round Boston and New York. It was an amazing trip, and one that I won’t forget any time soon. New York in those edgy, pre-millenial days was some place to be, and the red moon I captured rising over 666 Broadway seemed to sum up the weird feeling perfectly. I’d promised that I would cut those shots down to a short film in time for the New Year. Needless to say, those tapes are still in my store at home, untouched in ten years. It’s always going to be a thing to do when I have more time. And don’t get me started about the Australia footage that’s sitting in boxes beside it.

I love that camera. It’s a Sony MiniDV, and it cost us a fortune at the time – getting on for a grand. I blanch at the thought of spending that much dosh even now. But it’s earned it’s keep. It’s been to the States, Oz, Africa and Europe, and still gets used as a back-up camera for interview shoots. It’s small enough to tuck unobtrusively into a corner, and works brilliantly for cutaways and closeups. It’s got a decent lens and a good optical zoom. And the big battery I bought for it still gives nearly 4 hours recording time. And of course, plugged into the Mac it still does the business as a transfer dock for the Super 8 transfers I get done for films like Code Grey and the upcoming Time Out.

But of course it’s been ten years. So I’ve been humming and harring about getting a new camera. Clare’s Panasonic shoots HD video, and that’s fine, but it’s not MY camera. And much as I believe in the “what’s yours is mine” ethos, there are some boundaries that it’s uncomfortable to cross. I don’t touch her laptop, for example. It would be like going through her knicker drawer. There needs to be some respect for privacy. The Panny is hers, and she’s doing great work with it. And video is my field, after all.

I have therefore been mooning around Currys and Comet, eyeing up the camcorders, astonished by the drop in size and price. £350 would seem to get a hand-filling, sexy little number with a decent hard drive that would stow in a bag nicely.

But at the same time… they’re still consumer machines. And I’ve had my head turned by Dom’s lovely Sony cam, a professional piece of kit that he uses for paid gigs. If I ever needed it, he would let me borrow it without question. So really, I have no need of another video camera. The arguments go round and in my head, distilling down to the simple phrase, “Don’t need. WANT.”

Then I came across an Amazon link for the Kodak Zx1, an example of the “good enough” school of basic pick up and play vidcams that have none of the frills or functionality that I was used to. But it shoots HD video to an SD card, runs off a couple of rechargable AA batteries, has stills capability, and is small enough to go in a pocket. It’s the same size as my first-gen iPod. It was on sale.


Readership, I bought one. I very nearly bought two.

The picture quality is redonkulously good for something of this form factor. It’s fixed lens is sharp and clear. It won’t do macro, and barely has a zoom worth talking about, but so what? It’s the complete opposite to the kind of thing I wanted, and all the better for it. It will be used this summer for a short film mixing HD video and Super 8, and in the meantime for filmlets and squibs that I can shoot, cut and upload while an idea’s still fresh. I’m excited all over again.

Here’s the first fruit of my labours. Clare wanted documentary proof that I’d done the mowing on a day off. So that’s what I did.

Advice from a (very) reluctant gardener

I spent most of the last post regaling you with tales of my laziness and incompetence in the garden. So you’re probably wondering where the hell I get off in offering any sort of advice. Apart from “Don’t listen to a word this man says.” But I believe that scars can be lessons, and that you learn from your mistakes.

With the benefit of hindsight, then, I’d like to present you with my thoughts, random and twisted as they are, on the gentle art of food production. Or How Not To Fuck Up, The Rob Way.


You can’t go wrong with salad, really. It’s redonkuously simple to raise from seed, takes no time at all to grow, and just keeps coming back. In fact, along with bastard nettles, salad has led me to the greatest appreciation of the tenacity and vigour of plant life. Short of dumping a Bhopal worth of toxic nasties onto it, it’ll keep on coming.

A packet of mixed varieties of the kind of interesting leaves that will set you back three quid per pillow pack in Tesco can be had for a pittance, or free if you keep your eye on the gardening mags for cover-mounts. Open pack, scatter a pinch of seeds in a pot of fresh compost, water, leave, wait two weeks. Bingo. Gourmet salad that will keep coming up after several pickings, but if you scatter another pinch of seeds into the same pot every couple of weeks that, my friends, is salad for the summer.

Bear in mind though, that this needs a careful wash and a pick over before serving. And you might want to keep an eye out for stray nasties. Allow me to illustrate:

Things I have found in my salad pot while harvesting for dinner:

a) animal faeces

b) wormy slug things

c) nettles

A subset:

Things a thorough wash will remove from your carefully selected leaves:

a) animal faeces

And another:

Things I have fished out of salad moments before serving it to guests:

c) nettles

Go ahead, do the maths. I can wait.


Some cooks, notably Hugh Fearlessly-Eatsitall, are vocal in their support of the nutritional benefits and flavour of nettles. I am of the opinion that the vile toxin in this most evil of plants has percolated into his brain and is forcing him to do it’s bidding.

He has become a slave to the pernicious weed, and he wants us to come along with him to his happy little plant utopia. I know different. I have seen what these things look like. I know what these things can do. I have grabbed for something that looks like wild rocket, and come up with a bouquet of barbed wire that literally had me crying with pain.

Believe me, when you’ve pulled out a tap root as tall as you are, and still not be certain that you’ve got the whole thing, then you know that you are facing an enemy that deserves both your respect and your utter, unswerving emnity. It’s like the Day Of The Triffids out there, people, and if you’re unprepared the evil stingy little bastards will have you.

I have been known to extol the use of of napalm at the copse end. Like Ripley says, it’s the only way to be sure.

Right. Sorry. Where was I again?

Oh yeah. Nettle soup. Don’t do it. Your humanity will thank you.


I guess this is the point where you’d be justifed in yelling at me. Oh poor Rob, boo hoo hoo, look at me with my acres of land that gives me mild backache and and a thin excuse to wallow in undeserved existential angst. Some of us, that is, most of us, have to make do with the sort of postage stamp plot you gleefully walked away from in 2004, if we even have a patch of ground to hang a back door from. We don’t get the option of overwhelming ourselves with a horticultural excess, thank you very much Alan Titchmarsh, so less of the smuggery, you patronising git.

Which is fair enough. My woes are insignificant, and are born from a wealth of opportunity and space in which I could make my mistakes. I don’t claim to be any kind of expert. In fact I am the opposite. I am the sort of bumbling idiot that would make a rank amateur look like Monty Don, so I once again advise you to approach any advice I’m offering as hard-won, covered in bruises and mud, and to be taken with a heaped double handful of Maldon’s finest.

I do have a point here, believe it or don’t. If you have any kind of interest in throwing seeds into dirt and gnawing on the leafy results, then there is a shedful of advice and info out there which is maddeningly patronising and wildly contradictory.

For example. There’s a strong argument that one should grow the kind of crops that would be difficult or expensive to source in the shops. Kohl rabi, to name one. Cardoon. Celariac.

Which makes sense, until you’re faced with a bed full of kohl rabi, cardoon and celeriac and you realise that a) you have no idea what to do with it and b) no-one you know, including you, can eat the rank stuff. Seriously. Cardoon is a more fibrous, less tasty form of celery. Celeriac is like a turnip crossed with a football, in both appearance and flavour. Kohl rabi … fuck knows. Not a clue. Steam it until it goes gluey, then use it to plaster a wall for all I know. Or care.

So, yes, it may seem blatantly bloody obvious, and I can feel you winding up for another rant, but listen. Here’s my handful of change. Just grow what you like to eat. Root crops for definate. You can grow carrots and cabbage in a bucket if you have the slightest bit of outdoor space. Spuds can go in a planter, and even if you just grow newies it’s worth it. There’s a real difference in flavour if a new potato lands on your plate within an hour or so of coming out of the dirt.

And of course, tomatoes and chilis can be house plants as long as you’re vigilant and cruel with the foliage.

Now, to prove the point I made above, I’m going to merrily go ahead and contradict myself.

It’s worth growing exotic salads, as they’re quick to grow and easy to bin once you discover that mizuna isn’t your thing (heathen. It’s delicious.) And if you do have the space, it’s worth maybe trying one thing you wouldn’t usually pick up from Sainsbury’s. I developed a liking for courgettes after planting a couple on a whim, and there’s a plant in my small veg patch now that I’ve just started to crop from. Courgette fritters are the best, trust me.

But if you’ve only got counter or sill space then I SWEAR TO GOD YOU’RE AN IDIOT IF THERE AREN’T HERB PLANTS TAKING UP SOME OF IT. Attractive, fragrant, multiple uses, and may I once again stress, dirt in a pot, seeds, water, sunlight, bit of time, DONE. If you’re buying pot herbs or worse still, packets of cut herbs from Morrison’s, then you’re a mug. Unless your idea of herbs is that green confetti that you get out of a Schwartz pot. In which case just … go away. Really. Just go away.

A pot each of basil, thyme, rosemary and parsley will set you up as the kind of person that understands the function of a kitchen, that it’s not just a room to keep the microwave and kettle. And that, my friend, makes you the kind of person that is worth knowing, talking to, or snogging.


I guess what I’ve been trying to say all along is that my whole reason for going out in the garden in the first place was to improve my skills as a cook. Fresher ingredients make for a better meal. I’ll admit to monomania when it comes to the subject. If I can’t eat it, it’s really not my kind of thing.

Flowers and shrubs are ok, I suppose, in a fragrant sheltery kind of a way, but they’re just kind of … there, really. Taking up valuable carrot-growing space. Food from the earth is where it’s at for me. It’s the motivation for me to pick up a spade, pull on my gardening pants and get out there.

At one point, I even flirted with the idea of following the example of our next door neighbours and keeping chickens and a goat. Until I was quietly taken aside by my lovely wife.

“Rob,” she said, sitting me down and then sitting on me just to make sure I was listening. She may have wiggled a bit to really catch my attention. “You hate eggs, and you barely have the patience to look after a potato, let alone anything with a pulse. I’m not having the SWAT division of the RSPCA dropping in on us after you start running the animal equivalent of Aushwitz.”

She’s right, of course, curse every teeny tiny perfect inch of her. Vegetables very nearly got the better of me two years ago. That can’t happen again.

I now have one small plot, running courgette, butternut squash and cucumber plants. A couple of pots of chilis. A growbag with a couple of varieties of tomatoes. The aforementioned plethora of herbs and salad. And that’s it. Come the winter I’ll probably clear the ground and do cabbage, carrots and beetroot. Maybe some garlic and onion sets. Perhaps a planter of spuds when the new season seed potatoes arrive. But I’m keeping it at a proven acceptable level, and the ground clearance we worked so hard on means that the evil weeds should not present so much of a problem (ha ha famous last words).

I feel better about the copse end today than I have done in years. It feels like a place to relax, have a drink, and watch the vegetables grow.

And that, my patient, patient Readership, is what gardening is all about to me.

Confessions of a (very) reluctant gardener

It was all supposed to be so easy. We moved out of That London in 2004, ready to take on aspects of a new life. Clare was taking on a new job out in the throbbing everpulsating heart of Oxford’s Science Belt, I would begin the life of a Thames Valley Commuter. More importantly for the purposes of this piece, we were seriously upgrading our garden.

Our old place in Walthamstow was a typical two up two down end of terrace, snug, compact, with a garden that would blush with pride at being called postage-stamp sized. There was room for a couple of pots and an overenthusiastic gunnera. And us, if we sat close together and didn’t breathe too hard.

By comparison, the new place had a hundred and thirty feet to play with. There was a fish pond. There was a water feature. There was a vine-strewn pergola. There was another pond, which we found when we started getting the goddamn vine off the goddamn pergola.

And then there was the copse end. Backing onto a stand of trees owned by the local school, the last fifty feet had been used by the previous owner as the engine of a small market gardening enterprise. There was a ramshackle outbuilding, a greenhouse, and four big brick raised beds.

I looked at this bit, called bagsy on it, and began to plot my new life as a kitchen gardener. There was enough space to grow just about everything vegetable we could ever need, and the infrastructure was already there! It would be so simple. I started buying seeds, sets and bulbs and began to plant.

I was ahead of the curve when it came to the grow-your-own boom that is taking over gardening shows and magazines. I was growing spuds, knotting garlic and harvesting fresh salads a good few years before it became fashionable.

And I remain ahead of that curve now. While everyone else is building, I’ve spent the past few weeks tearing everything down. The greenhouse and outbuilding have gone. All but one of the beds has been torn up, and turf will soon be laid over where they once stood.

I’m starting again. And this time I’m doing it right.

It was fine for the first year or so. I started gently, opening up one bed at a time, planting the veg that I knew I would eat. Spuds, carrots, onions. Root crops that didn’t need much care or attention. The weather was good, the harvest was deeply satisfying. On several occasions, I was cooking and serving meals which had been 80% sourced from the beds.

I started to get ambitious, and that, Readership, is where the wheel started to come off the wheelbarrow. I opened up all four beds, and was growing a veritable cornucopia of veggie goodness. Sweetcorn, courgettes, tomatoes and chilis. Radish, cucumber, salads by the bowlful. And we started to come across a couple of problems.

First of all, as I commute to and from work in London, I spend twelve hours a day away from the house. I was getting less and less time to tend the plots, and increasingly, less inclination to do so. Weeds began to sneak into the beds, and I had to spend an increasing chunk of my weekends battling the nettles and bindweed. Weeding is no fun, and I began to resent, rather than enjoy the time I was spending at the copse end. It was tiring work, and as I began to put it off more and more, the unwelcome visitors began to take a firm grip. I was getting stung to bits and worn out every time I took a trip down the garden – a trip I was becoming increasingly disinclined to take.

Secondly, I was the victim of my own ambition. I had planted up enough food to feed a decent size vegetarian village, and was simply growing far more than we could eat. Even with donations to interested parties, a lot of what I grew bolted or rotted in the ground before it could get eaten. This, in addition to a couple of lousy summers, meant that I gradually stopped even going up past the garage to see what carnage was being wrought.

The results were pretty obvious. The copse end became a weed-clogged, gloomy nightmare. It was used as a location for the Sick Puppy film “The Gourmand”, and it suited perfectly. My bit of the garden had mutated from a landscape of hope and sustenance to the setting for a horror film.

(2:28 for the true horror).

Things had to change, and this year has been the year to do it. We came to the conclusion that things weren’t working, and for a very good reason. We were trying to adapt what was in place to our needs, rather than letting our needs dictate the shape of the grounds.

Also, we had known when we moved in that the sun ended up drenching the copse end in the afternoon. It was the perfect place to unwind after work with a beer, and being confronted with under-tended veg beds was not the nicest of views.

Also, I’m a workshy knob who’s not really that into gardening in the first place. There, I said it. I love the idea of gardening, planting stuff, eating the results. It’s all that tedious mucking around with dirt and spades in the middle that I can’t get to grips with. Yes, yes, I know, if you’re an organised gardener you can get your chores down to twenty minutes a day but even that small amount seems like a noisome intrusion into my plonked-in-front-of-a-laptop time.

Or, if I can just be slightly less tough on myself for a sec, the only spare time I get to fart around with hoes and sticks and watering cans are weekends, time that I kind of like to spend with my lovely wife not bloody working, thank you.

We have spent our free time this spring on clearance duties. The copse end has been restored to a tabula rasa, and this time we’re defining what goes onto it. We have, as the sainted Ellen Ripley would urge, nuked the site from orbit. I have made acquaintance with a sledgehammer. Anyone aware of my co-ordination issues should be cringing at that thought, but thus far I, and everyone within swinging range, remain surprisingly undamaged.


We have cut down three trees, including the scary eucalyptus that was blocking the sun, while looming towards the house at a thirty-degree angle. That took one long Saturday, a day tainted with the distinct fear that at one point the bugger was going to land in next door’s garden, on top of their greenhouse. It didn’t, but it was a close call.


We mused about remaking the outhouse into a summerhouse, before giving into the inevitable, realising it was half-rotten and rendering it down to firewood. We have had a lot of bonfires this year, each one a waypoint, a signal flare, an exorcism.

And there are bonuses. I have a shed now. I have a proper, honest to goodness shed. I have a firepit. A proper, marshmallow-burning firepit. We have turf to lay, a summerhouse to raise, lights to place. And then, Readership, we will have a piece of land that we can be proud to call our own.


Coming up: Rob seems to think he can give advice about gardening, despite all the evidence to the contrary he’s just given.